‘Prepare ye the way of the Lord’ – that is what art does. Phyllis Novak


Altdorfer, Albrecht - by H.R. Rookmaaker

‘Expressionistic’ and ‘normal’ in Altdorfer’s work

by H.R. Rookmaaker
A work of art is a world in which everything has its place, and in which each element is given the place most suited to it. It is a place in which the essential is never subordinate to the non-essential, nor the more important subordinate to the incidental or coincidental. On the other hand, it is a very limited world, appropriate to our limited human capacity. These words are very true; in particular we must never lose sight of the truth of that last sentence. For art is always a human expression, and therefore the artist’s own perceptions about the meaning and the structure of things will be expressed in his or her art. When each part and each value is assigned its proper place, in accordance with reality, and when the structures and the proportions (in both the literal and the metaphorical sense) are in harmony with the true nature of things, then we will have truly good art.
Thus in an artwork the artists express their vision of reality in their own way. In the first place that will be evident from their choice of themes; artists are always searching for relevant subjects through which they can most clearly express their own views. In the second place their views will become apparent from the manner in which a subject is presented. In this way art is directly related to all of life, for the artist’s life, ideals and disappointments, the world in which she or he moves, will leave their stamp on the work. We could state more generally that the art of a certain period of time will always reflect the quality and depth of the societal life of that era. The diversity of trends and views in each period, and all the things that occupied people’s minds, will reverberate in that era’s art – the profound as well as the trivial, the deep as well as the superficial, the beautiful as well as the ugly, the good as well as the bad. That is why we can learn so much about a particular period by studying its art, assuming that we allow the art to speak to us in all its facets and not restrict ourselves to only the good art but also look at art that is of inferior quality and value.
The first half of the sixteenth century in Germany was a complicated and restless time. It is no wonder that the art of that period was very diverse, reflecting the variety of trends and movements. This makes it incredibly fascinating but also rather difficult to study the art history of that time. We will try to present a rough overview here to give you an impression of the incredibly diverse movements at work. It will not be possible, of course, to explore each one in great detail.
We have already spoken about Dürer’s work several times before, since he was the greatest and most important artist of the time. Besides that, we have art with strong mystical tendencies, deeply passionate and extremely colourful, vehement in its expression and stirring in its form: we think especially of Grünewald in this connection. Next, we find art that is equally passionate but much more secular. It is rich with a fierce intensity of life, and it has a special love for the diverse and colourful life of the soldier (and his sweetheart). This art takes a special interest in the activities of the Swiss landsknechts (mercenary foot soldiers) and its most notable representatives are Urs Graf and Niklaus Manuel Deutsch.
Baldung Grien’s work is equally intense. His work was strongly affected by the prevailing superstitions of the day, with witches being his favourite theme, but it was also influenced already by humanism, evidenced by his interest in the human body and his love of allegory. He also preferred the subject of death, but that was not uncommon in those days. (Think, for example, of Holbein’s Dance of Death.) Then we also see reflected in art that scholarly humanism which glorified antiquity but at the same time seems to have taken the liberty, partly due to a lack of real knowledge, of playing around rather freely with the facts. We noted that already in our discussion of Dürer’s Melancholia. There was, however, a whole group of artists for whom humanism held much weightier significance than it did for Dürer; for them it was integrally connected with their thoroughly secular world view, and they searched for rational laws and a control over nature. Finally there is art that is closely tied to the church; in particular we are thinking of the so-called late Gothic Baroque. (If you saw the ‘Viennese Exhibition’ in Amsterdam in 1947, you will undoubtedly remember the statues by Luchsperger.) But we will deal extensively with Baroque art another time.
We will now focus on the Danube school. Its art displayed a kind of romanticism and, at times, an unadulterated expressionism. Its main characteristics are the passionate expression of a person’s deepest feelings and the direct visual representation of those emotions and feelings. Having said that, we need to explain what it is that inspires and sets into motion such passionate feelings. In the early sixteenth century the Germans reflected on their own aspirations and emotions. Most of them were nominally Roman Catholic, but their lives had become extremely secular. Although they often took their outward religious duties quite seriously, so that superstitious traditions like worshiping saints and selling indulgences reached an all-time high, these people were really just interested in following their own desires.
On the one hand the church’s secularism inspired a counterreaction: a desire for holiness and a purer form of piety. This led either to mysticism – which flourished freely – or to a hunger for the true Word. Many people desperately flitted from one preacher to another in their hunger to hear the true voice of the Master, but all too often they received stones instead of bread (as in sermons that were obsessed with speculations about the thousand-year reign, for example), and they inevitably turned away in great disappointment. Finally the Lord sent his witness in the person of Martin Luther.
On the other hand, however, one of the logical results of the church’s apostasy was a desire to break free from those hollow and superficial traditions that seemed so meaningless. More and more, people left the church and everything connected with it and aimed at an ever more consistent secularism. The control of nature and the ideal of individual freedom became the primary values. Here we see the beginnings of the modern mindset, free and autonomous. It should not surprise us, then, that the art of that period often bears a strong resemblance to the art of much later times – and in particular to the Expressionism of our own [twentieth] century.
What is the nature of expressionism? Mainly, it involves a preoccupation with the natural world. But it is a natural world that has become hostile and mysterious, sometimes to the point of being demonic. Absolute human freedom is restricted by that natural world, since it limits and even opposes human efforts. When people reject and even fight all laws and norms they will be unwilling and unable to see the steadfast structures that order God’s creation. Rather, they see nature as a world in which strange and mysterious primitive forces are at work. In their view, the apparently orderly, regular and controlled laws of nature are in constant danger of being upset by unfathomable, uncontrollable and completely irrational (i.e. unpredictable) tensions. Primal forces, in the deepest sense completely chaotic and senseless, reveal themselves in the observable natural world and constantly threaten to destroy it, to explode, so that all individuality is lost again in a totality that is as purposeless and cruel as a huge, stupid beast. A person’s life in this dangerous world is as precarious as if he or she were living on the edge of a volcano. Nature, completely hostile to humanity and human culture, demonic in the deepest sense of the word, destroys all law patterns and order. This is how Graham Sutherland, a contemporary British painter puts it: ‘In my opinion the vision of a painter must be rooted in reality, and that which is mysterious and intangible must be made real and tangible.’ And Herbert Read writes of Sutherland’s work: ‘His art betrays the longing to reveal the workings of a hidden germinative power, and to sketch the unexpected forms which life gives rise to in its blind creative passion.’ Those unexpected forms are then, for Sutherland, the relevant forms. Sutherland himself has said that ‘sometimes during a walk that I have walked dozens of times before, something that I earlier on never noticed suddenly springs into the foreground and becomes intensely real.’ A similar form, which symbolizes the nature of reality as we have characterized it above, can be seen in his Green tree form of 1940. It is horrifying, cruel, hostile, and thoroughly primitive.
A rather lengthy introduction to lead us into the topic of the Danube school! But now, when we study Altdorfer’s 1511 drawing of a Danube landscape, we can begin to see the strong connection between his sinister, mysterious, and freakish tree and the one painted by Sutherland. This connection did not come about because Sutherland borrowed ideas from Altdorfer or was being influenced by him, but because there is a similar understanding of reality at the base of their work. The rest of that vast landscape by Altdorfer is in complete harmony with the atmosphere created by that particular tree; it is a totality in which form is held in close  check but threatens at any moment to break apart in chaos. This reality is perceived very romantically, but ‘romanticism’ in this context means nothing other than expressionism, though somewhat more moderate and still bound to a certain extent by tradition. What do we know about Altdorfer? He was born around 1480; in 1505 he established himself in Regensburg, situated on the Danube in southern Germany. His earliest works of which we are aware were created in 1506. The early works encompass mainly humanistic themes like Mars, Flora, allegories of the Virtues, scenes with satyrs, etc. In addition, we see an affinity with the Swiss artists whose main focus was the lives of the landsknechts. Then we also have some biblical themes, and some scenes depicting the lives of the saints. A particularly famous work portrays the Flight into Egypt, with Mary sitting by a large fountain, some ancient ruins in the background. For ‘romantic’ artists, ruins are a common and very relevant theme, for they show nature winning out over culture. At the same time the forms of the ruins are appropriately irrational, arbitrary, wild and unsteady. Altdorfer builds some very romantic ruins into his nativity scenes too, and emphasizes this mood with a strange kind of light.
Around 1509 he took his first trip along the Danube towards Vienna and Austria. There he learned the ancient art of these countries, as well as the art of the young Cranach which displayed similar expressive qualities. (Cranach later travelled to Wittenberg, where his style underwent a radical change.) The expressionistic tendencies already present in Altdorfer’s work now became more vehement and more outspoken. After a period of more restful, balanced art he entered a second period of Sturm und Drang with the making of his large St Florian altar of 1518. Around this time, a new cult emerged which venerated the Regensburg statue of the Virgin Mary, convinced that it had miraculous powers; in this connection Altdorfer received a number of commissions. After that, however, his work became gradually more restrained, more attuned to reality and its structure. Landscapes without figures became his main focus, and along with that we see many different humanistic themes. The latter were strongly influenced by the Nuremberg Kleinmeister, true humanists who were in turn strongly influenced by Dürer. In addition, we see a growing trend towards portraying events from daily life, with the landsknechts and knights receiving less attention. Altdorfer began to portray the day-to-day life around him, even in his creation of the 1526 masterpiece of the story of  Susanna. In general there are fewer works on saints’ lives, and a growing interest in the themes of the Crucifixion and the Old Testament stories. By 1519 Altdorfer was a member of the town assembly and in 1526 elected to the city council. During that same time he also became the town architect. In 1528 he was asked to become mayor, but he did not accept the position since he was busy with a large commissioned work for Duke William of Bavaria, Alexander’s battle, a masterpiece of unsurpassed excellence which we unfortunately do not have time to discuss here. It is important to recognize Altdorfer’s growing sympathy for Lutheranism during these years. During 1521–1525 he engraved a portrait of Luther after the well-known print by Cranach. In 1533 he was one of the 15 councillors who decided to call a minister to the church built especially for the Mary statue with miraculous powers that we mentioned earlier, a minister who would be instrumental in putting an end to this Madonna worship.
Altdorfer died in 1538; in his will he stated emphatically that he wanted nothing to do with the prayers for the dead in the church. Although it cannot be confirmed by further writings, it is very well possible that the stylistic change in the 1520s toward an art form that looks at reality in a more positive light is directly related to his increased interest in Lutheranism. We must remember that the break with the ‘old’ church was usually not so clean and sharp in these early years of the Reformation; actually people were often hardly aware of the radical principled departure from traditional attitudes displayed in the works. Gradually that became clearer, particularly as the conflict heated up. Despite the fact that, thematically, the break was not very sharp (though it is clearly there), I believe that in this new, non-expressionistic attitude toward nature, there is evidence of a more scripturally sound attitude toward God’s creation. When we look at Altdorfer’s later landscapes (after 1522), we notice the calmness and the realism which had by now taken hold of him. Just prior to 1520 he produced vehemently expressionistic works; afterwards he produced idyllic and pure representations of nature, without any mystery or demonic elements, without irrationality. Instead we see nature in its wholeness, rich and warm – a scene that instils confidence. The spirit such a work evokes is so different from what his earlier work did that we can hardly attribute the change solely to aesthetic ‘influences’. The only thing that can account for such a drastic change is a profound change of heart on the part of the artist. Reality becomes ‘normal’, free of all unnatural tension. Reality is accepted and welcomed just as it is, the natural setting in which God has placed us, which in his faithfulness he maintains and in which he draws near to us, his covenant children, protecting us from the Devil and his whole dominion. It is a world in which we, as his creatures, may work and enjoy life freely, in the fear of the Lord. A larger and more profound beauty is revealed, and God’s world is no longer our enemy, but a peaceful valley, a foretaste of the new earth.
Originally published in Dutch in Stijl 2, 2, 1953.
Published in English in M. Hengelaar-Rookmaaker (ed.): H.R. Rookmaaker: The Complete Works 4, Piquant – Carlisle, 2003. Also obtainable as a CD-Rom. and